When I and others have discussed the idea of a fusion of libertarian and liberal ideas there have been supporters and detractors both among libertarians and liberals. This is largely because of the variety of beliefs in both groups. An article by Tyler Cohen at Cato Unbound provides further evidence that there can be areas of common ground between libertarians and liberals.
Liberals can range from more classical liberals whose primary interest is in civil liberties and social issues while supporting a free market system to supporters of a big government welfare state. The former group shows an overlap with libertarian beliefs, while the latter has far less common ground with libertarians. Libertarians range from those hostile to any form of government whatsoever, to those who accept varying degrees of government. There is often a fine line between the later form of libertarian and the first group of liberals I mentioned. (This could be confused further by a number of right wingers who have taken the libertarian label while rejecting basic libertarian principles in supporting Bush and the Iraq war. To consider these faux-libertarians to be libertarian strips the libertarian name of any real meaning, which has been a complaint of many libertarians.)
Tyler Cohen shows the degree to which some libertarians and liberals do overlap when he argues that the paradox of the success of the libertarian movement has been bigger government:
Those developments have brought us much greater wealth and much greater liberty, at least in the positive sense of greater life opportunities. They’ve also brought much bigger government. The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford. Furthermore, the better government operates, the more government people will demand. That is the fundamental paradox of libertarianism. Many initial victories bring later defeats.
I am not so worried about this paradox of libertarianism. Overall libertarians should embrace these developments. We should embrace a world with growing wealth, growing positive liberty, and yes, growing government. We don’t have to favor the growth in government per se, but we do need to recognize that sometimes it is a package deal.
The old formulas were “big government is bad” and “liberty is good,” but these are not exactly equal in their implications. The second motto — “liberty is good” — is the more important. And the older story of “big government crushes liberty” is being superseded by “advances in liberty bring bigger government.”
Often the issue comes down to whether increasing liberty or eliminating government is the primary goal. Some libertarians see any government as evil, and act as if there is no moral distinction between government inspecting meat and government restricting free speech. Hardcore libertarians also have a hard sell because many people who might agree on civil liberties and on social issues do not see going without health insurance, or giving up their social security benefits, as becoming more free.
I suspect that many libertarians are going to object to Cohen’s article. While “big government conservativism” really was no surprise as Republican support for liberty and small government has generally been transparent rhetoric divorced from their actual policies, “big government libertarianism” might be seen as a violation of core beliefs. The specific examples Cohen gave of government action are fairly benign, but his argument might also be used to justify the pro-war and pro-Republican attitudes on the right. Ultimately labels have grave limitations, lumping people together who might have very different beliefs and dividing people who are actually close in their beliefs. The overlaps between some libertarians and liberals, as well as the divisions within these groups, provides an excellent example of these limitations in using labels.